Toronto: Police Conduct Strip Searches During Every Third Arrest

Update:

Toronto Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee. This has been going on, along with carding since Mukherjee has been Chair. These practices have not stopped during his tenor, despite the rulings from the courts.  As in every other case, he'll recommend that the ongoing breaches of the law should be "studied" and ultimately continued. Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star
Toronto Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee (seen on right). This has been going on, along with the practice of carding since Mukherjee has been Chair. These practices have not stopped during his tenor, despite the rulings from the different courts, up to and including the Supreme Court. As in every other serious case under review, he’ll recommend that the ongoing breaches of the law should be “studied” and will ultimately find that they should be continued. Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

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In the latest move in a nearly decade-long review of strip-searches, the chair of the Toronto Police Services Board is recommending the force itself be examined — via random spot check — to monitor officers’ use of the practice.

Alok Mukherjee, at the Thursday board meeting, plans to recommend asking Police Chief Bill Blair to examine how and when officers carry out strip searches — a probe that would include random spot checks at all 17 police divisions.

The aim is to get a better understanding of why a strip search was conducted in one out of every three arrests last year, despite a Supreme Court ruling stating the tool cannot be employed “routinely.”

“The point of (random spot checks) would be to find out exactly: How are the police officers justifying their request for search, and what are the supervisors — the sergeants, staff sergeants — basing their approval on?” Mukherjee said Tuesday.

Concerns persist about strip-searches despite the procedures and policies that have been put in place by both the police service and the board.

Mukherjee calls those policies “robust and comprehensive.”

They require, among other things, that officers performing a strip search must explain the legal grounds for it to a superior officer beforehand. That superior must then consider the justification for the search.

“I believe that it is critical to now look beyond the governance tools and examine how officers and their supervisors are operationalizing our policies and procedures in their day-to-day work,” Mukherjee wrote in a message to board members, contained in Thursday’s board agenda.

He suggests the spot checks be carried out between June 15 and Aug. 15, allowing the chief time to compile and report the findings at the October board meeting.

How these spot checks would be done, by whom and how often, would be determined by Blair, Mukherjee said in an interview Tuesday.

Concerns about the over-use of strip searches by Toronto police have dogged the board for years, most recently illustrated in statistics that showed 20,152 people were strip-searched in 2013 — some 34 per cent of all arrests.

Police found evidence, such as drugs, in just over 1 per cent of those searches.

John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and head of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, is skeptical that the spot checks will work.

“This seems like another general report, and in fact what we have to do is get much more specific,” he said.

His organization would instead like to see the board make it mandatory for officers to conduct less-invasive pat-downs before they move on to a strip search, known as a Level 3, that entails removing some or all of a person’s clothing.

Emphasizing that strip searches should be rare, Sewell said Blair and the board should aim to reduce their use to 5 per cent of arrests.

The board has previously asked Blair to report back on the criteria considered when deciding whether to do a pat-down, or Level 2, search.

Blair also expects to return to the board in June with a report on the possibility of using alternative technologies, such as airport-style scanners, in place of strip searches.

The board is scheduled to meet at police headquarters at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

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